Why Hibs defender Paul Hanlon is worth a Scotland call-up

Hibs centre-back Paul Hanlon has been in excellent form this season. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Hibs centre-back Paul Hanlon has been in excellent form this season. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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With fingers again being pointed at the Scotland backline following the 3-0 loss to England, perhaps it’s time to look further afield for defenders, writes Patrick McPartlin

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Scotland’s defence at Wembley may have been somewhat makeshift but there’s no hiding from the fact that Scotland have looked defensively vulnerable in all their World Cup qualifiers during this campaign. Gordon Strachan has shown, with the inclusion of Kieran Tierney and Callum Paterson, that he’s prepared to shake up his full backs. So why not extend that to his centre halves?

There was almost an expectation among some sections of the support that Grant Hanley would drop out of the starting XI to face England and be replaced by Christophe Berra. Instead, Hanley - who has struggled for game time at Newcastle United this season following his move from Blackburn Rovers - was paired alongside the former Hearts man with Russell Martin dropping to the bench, Lee Wallace at left back and Ikechi Anya at right back.

Hanley has come in for criticism from fans and pundits alike for making the same mistakes and by his own admission, should have equalised on Friday night when presented with a free header around eight yards from goal.

Supporters are calling for a shake-up at the back, with the likes of John Souttar, Paul Hanlon and even Liam Cooper of Leeds United playing regularly, and generally impressing.

Hanlon in particular has a fairly strong shout for inclusion in the next squad, having made more than 30 appearances for Scotland U19s and Scotland U21s, and captained both sides.

At club level, he was made captain of Hibs at the age of just 22, he’s played in three national cup finals in the last four years and he has European experience, the highlight being a clean sheet against Brondby in Denmark over 120 minutes.

Granted, two of those three finals ended badly for Hibs and the less said the better about the Easter Road side’s recent record in Europe. But players benefit from all types of experience and it could be argued that Hanlon’s all-round game has improved as a result of setbacks on the European stage and in those cup finals.

The fact that he is playing in the Scottish Championship, against Scottish Championship strikers, is the biggest argument against a call-up. Nothing against Scotland’s second tier strikers, but there’s quite literally no comparison between the likes of Harry Kane and John Baird, or Garry Fleming and Slovakian hitman Adam Nemec.

But Hanlon’s performances against Premiership-quality opponents last season - think Adam Rooney, Michael O’Halloran, Niall McGinn and arguably Kenny Miller - suggest he is more than comfortable facing a higher level of opponent and isn’t trailing behind the likes of Souttar or Mark Reynolds.

The reality is that Scotland’s options in central defence beyond the usual suspects are so sparse that giving Hanlon a chance is an experiment worth trying.

It was no coincidence that Hibernian’s form tailed off sharply last season after Hanlon sustained an injury in a 3-2 loss away to Dumbarton. Hibs only registered one win in five without him, and it’s worth pointing out that during the 2013/14 season when Hibs were relegated, an injury that ruled Hanlon out for the rest of the campaign saw Hibs embark on their longest winless run all season.

Most supporters of the Easter Road side would agree that the Hibs defence is stronger with Hanlon in it - even if there is an argument that, like fellow long-serving defender Lewis Stevenson, Hanlon was a mainstay in the Hibs backline during the club’s downward spiral.

On the other hand it could be argued that Hanlon’s professionalism and ability has stood out to respective Hibernian managers while his progression and improvement, particularly under the tutelage of Alan Stubbs, speaks for itself.

Hanlon could very possibly be hitting his peak as a footballer and as such, deserves - and has possibly even earned - a chance in the Scotland side.

Still only 26, Hanlon has made nearly 300 appearances for Hibs, has 15 goals to his name and is one of the first names on the team sheet. He’s good in the air, and good with the ball at his feet. He’s also not averse to the odd foray forward, in a nod to his formative years spent as a midfielder at Hutchison Vale.

That the Hibs defence is statistically - for the time being at least - the meanest in the UK leagues is testament to the performances of Hanlon, alongside Liam Fontaine and Darren McGregor.

Hanlon was criticised for a perceived lack of physicality in the past, and it’s true that there were instances in matches where he was muscled off the ball all too easily.

But over time he has bulked up, and it’s a while since he was last pushed off the ball by a burly striker.

His positional sense has improved over the last couple of seasons to the extent that he can forego physicality and aggression for skill and technique, setting him apart from his defensive counterparts.

While Scotland are blessed with a glut of left backs, the squad is in dire need of new faces at centre half - and with left-sided centre halves even rarer, Hanlon could be in with a shout.

Scotland’s total of 11 goals conceded in the last five games - including three without reply on two occasions - is a stark warning that Strachan’s team are unconvincing, if not vulnerable at the back.

Fans are calling for changes in the defence and whilst Hanlon might not be the name on everyone’s lips, there are limited options for Scotland in that department.

Strachan has shown, however, that he is resistant to wholesale changes, and the chances of Hanlon making the next squad let alone featuring against Slovakia are probably slim to none.

But the current situation in Scotland’s rearguard just might prompt Strachan to act.

Gordon Greer’s ship looks to have sailed; Russell Martin’s relegation to the bench for the Wembley clash suggests the Norwich City man may have fallen out of favour and Hanley’s time looks to be up as well.

Hanlon’s advantage is that he has that international experience at underage level, he’s playing virtually every week and is comfortable in a back three or back four. Crucially, at six years older than Souttar, he is more mentally ready for international football than the Hearts defender - regardless of talent and potential.

Strachan’s comments regarding Hanlon’s Easter Road team mate John McGinn - that the former St Mirren man wouldn’t have to leave Hibs to earn regular international call-ups - suggest that the national team coach could be prepared to revisit Leith to supplement his squad if he decides to bring in reinforcements.

Strachan is running out of viable options at the back, and unless he wants to pitch in the 20-year-old Souttar or the untried Cooper (which in all likelihood he won’t), he has nothing to lose by throwing everyone a curve ball and giving Hanlon a chance against Slovakia.

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• An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hanlon had appeared in four cup finals, and not three. We have rectified the error